Remembering Sam Cooke 50 Years After His Death
- Sam Cooke performing on television in the early 1960s
- Everett Collection
Sam Cooke died 50 years ago this week, an anniversary that is receiving little or no organized fanfare. It’s not that Cooke is entirely forgotten: His 1960 hit “(What A) Wonderful World” – “Don’t know much about history…” – has been streamed more than 15 million times on Spotify,and his reading of his civil-rights anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come” is approaching 10 million streams on the service.
In 2005, he was the subject of “Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke,” a comprehensive biography by Peter Guralnick, who documented the life of Elvis Presley with similar thoroughness.
RCA issued an eight-disk boxed set of Cooke’s music in 2012 and a decade before that, Specialty released a three-disk set of his recordings with the Soul Stirrers, the gospel giants. The documentary “Crossing Over” was broadcast in 2011 on PBS’s “American Masters” series. Cobbled together, all that may add up to an ample tribute, but it seems short of enough for Cooke, whose contribution to American music and the way African-American musicians were to be perceived should not be lost to misty memory.
Considering Cooke was at work in popular music at the same time as James Brown, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Etta James, Little Willie John and Little Richard, among others, it may seem dubious to claim he was the greatest of his era, but few would’ve thought it outrageous a half-century ago. Between 1957 and after his death at age 33, Cooke had 30 hits on the Billboard singles charts including “You Send Me,” “Chain Gang,” “Cupid,” “Twistin’ the Night Away,” “Bring It On Home to Me” and “Another Saturday Night” – all of which he wrote.
On stage, he conveyed cool confidence, which in its quiet, sensuous way was every bit as dynamic as the sweat-dripping performances of his contemporary, the great Jackie Wilson. Aware his music appealed equally to both white and African-American audiences, Cooke sought the status not of his R&B counterparts, but mainstream stars Harry Belafonte, Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis and Frank Sinatra. Taking the long view, he ran his own record label, owned his publishing rights, composed for other singers and employed the best musicians regardless of race. “I have organized my career on a business-like basis,” he told the Pittsburgh Courier in 1960.
Cooke knew where he was headed from his childhood days in Chicago Heights, where his family relocated from Clarksdale, Mississippi. L.C. Cooke, a terrific soul singer in his own right, reported that his older brother articulated his ambitions while still in grade school: To prepare for public life, he jabbed Popsicle sticks into the ground and sang to them as if they were an audience. Having impressed gospel fans as lead tenor with the QCs, in 1950 he replaced the influential R.H. Harris in the Soul Stirrers. Given the popularity of gospel at the time – Ebony magazine reported that gospel singers were selling more records than were popular crooners and blues artist – it was a career-making move.
In retrospect, the seeds of Cooke’s career in pop and R&B are evident in the Soul Stirrers’ “He’s My Friend Until the End,” “Wonderful,” the somber ballad “Any Day Now,” the Cooke composition “Nearer to Thee” and other gospel hits in which he was featured. Gospel singers like Clyde McPhatter and the Orioles’ Sonny Til had crossed over to secular music, and Ray Charles and Willie Dixon had based hits on gospel tunes. A path had been cleared, and in ’57, Cooke left the Soul Stirrers to become a pop star.
With guitarist Clif White, who had backed the Mills Brothers, Cooke cut “You Send Me,” which was a number-one hit on the Billboard R&B and Pop charts. Rooted in gospel – it featured some of the same vocal filigrees he used in “Wonderful” – “You Send Me” also had the candor of folk music and it helped usher in a form of American music known as soul. Two albums cut in ’63 reveal his many sides: the limber, rough-edged live set recorded with King Curtis at the Harlem Square Club in Miami; and the intimate, gospel- and blues-inspired “Night Beat.”
Subjected often to racism, in time Cooke came to refuse to perform before segregated audiences, following the lead of Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, McPhatter and others. After the August 1963 march on Washington that featured Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech and performances by Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson, Cooke, inspired in part by Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” wrote “A Change is Gonna Come.” He sang it once in public: On “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” Two days later, the Beatles made their first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” an event that elbowed aside soul and R&B for many American music fans.
By the time “A Change Is Gonna Come” was released as a single, Cooke was dead, shot by a motel owner after he protested vehemently that a woman who turned out to be a prostitute had taken off with his cash and clothes. His body lay in state before thousands of fans in Los Angeles and Chicago.
Today Cooke is part of the pop pantheon, but perhaps not with the status he deserves as a quintessential Americana artist and music-business role model. The 50th anniversary of his death is a good time to revisit his contribution to popular music and revel in his enormous talent.
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